For years now, John Boehner’s continued occupation of the House speakership has been in doubt. Would the tea partyers evict him in a coup? Would he simply not want this thankless task anymore? The presumption, which I’ve always shared, is that Boehner is in a nearly impossible position. Pressed by a large right flank that sees any compromise as a betrayal, he is constrained from making the deals necessary to pass legislation. While Mitch McConnell can successfully corral his caucus to vote as a unified bloc, the one over which Boehner presides contains so many extremists and cranks that it’s just impossible to hold together.
All of that is true. But might it also be true that Boehner is just terrible at his job?
Look at the two stories about Boehner making the rounds today, both of which were addressed in an appearance he made on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday. The first is the possibility of a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security if Congress can’t pass a bill to fund the department. At a moment when the news is being dominated by terrorism, both in the Middle East and in Europe, a shutdown would be a PR disaster for the GOP (even if, in reality, the key functions of the department would continue with little interruption). The House passed a bill to fund the department, including a provision revoking President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Everyone knows that such a bill is going nowhere — it failed to overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and even if it had, Obama has made clear that he’ll veto it.
Asked repeatedly by host Chris Wallace whether the House would revisit the Homeland Security spending bill, Boehner kept repeating that “The House has done its job.” And he couldn’t have been clearer on the possibility of a shutdown:
WALLACE: And what if the Department of Homeland Security funding runs out?
BOEHNER: Well, then, Senate Democrats should to be blame. Very simply.
WALLACE: And you’re prepared to let that happen?
BOEHNER: Certainly. The House has acted. We’ve done our job.
Boehner can say “Senate Democrats should be to blame,” but that won’t make it so. Everyone knows how this is going to end: Both houses are going to pass a “clean” spending bill, which Obama will sign. The only question is whether there’s a department shutdown along the way. If and when that happens, Republicans are going to be blamed, just as they were when they forced a total government shutdown in 2013. His calculation now seems to be the same as it was then: I’ll force a shutdown to show the tea partyers that I’m being tough and standing up to Obama, and then once it becomes clear that we’re getting the blame, that’ll give me the room to end the crisis by giving in and allowing the vote that will bring everything to a close. It’s not exactly a strategy to maximize his party’s political gain.
That brings us to the second ongoing PR catastrophe Boehner has engineered, the upcoming speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both here and in Israel, where Netanyahu faces an election next month, the speech has been roundly condemned for politicizing the relationship between the two countries, essentially turning the Israeli prime minister into a partisan Republican coming to the U.S. to campaign against President Obama’s approach to negotiating with Iran about their nuclear program. Worst of all, Boehner invited Netanyahu to make the speech without informing the White House, a bit of foreign policy usurpation that people in both parties find somewhere between inappropriate and outrageous. Here’s how Boehner talked about it yesterday:
BOEHNER: And then when it comes to the threat of Iran having a nuclear weapon — these are important messages that the Congress needs to hear and the American people need to hear. And I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the perfect person to deliver the message of how serious this threat is.
WALLACE: But when you talk with [Israeli ambassador] Ron Dermer about inviting Netanyahu, you told him specifically not to tell the White House.
Why would you do that, sir?
BOEHNER: Because I wanted to make sure that there was no interference. There’s no secret here in Washington about the animosity that this White House has for Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I frankly didn’t want them getting in the way and quashing what I thought was a real opportunity.
WALLACE: But it has created a — if not a firestorm, certainly a controversy here. It has a created a controversy in Israel. And shouldn’t the relationship between the U.S. and Israel be outside of politics?
BOEHNER: It’s an important message that the American people need to hear. I’m glad that he’s coming and I’m looking forward to what he has to say.
It may be that by now Boehner thinks that having come this far, he can’t rescind the invitation without making the whole thing look even worse. That’s possible, but by making the invitation in the first place, and keeping it secret from the administration, he created a truly epic blunder, one that not only makes him look bad but also damages American foreign policy interests.
So on the whole, Boehner is managing to combine legislative incompetence with PR incompetence. He’s already sure to be known as one of the weakest speakers in American history, for at least some reasons that are out of his control. But he might also be known as one of the least effective. Perhaps no one could have done a better job in his place, but since no other Republican seems to want the job, we may never know.